Conservation, public lands, and outdoor recreation

My research analyzes the economics of public lands and rural communities, the outdoor recreation economy, and approaches to conservation funding. 

Valley of the Gods, Bears Ears National Monument, Utah

Valley of the Gods, Bears Ears National Monument, Utah

public lands and rural communities

In this blog post, I discuss the “outdoor recreation economy” movement and the implications for public lands funding and management. Eleven states have newly-established outdoor recreation offices or task forces that are designed to promote economic development around the outdoor recreation industry. As the industry grows and communities benefit economically, they need to consider how to “pay back” the public lands they rely on.

National monuments are protected federal lands that are home to scientific, cultural and historic resources. They have been fraught with conflict and controversy over the years (evidence: President Trump’s recent order reducing the size of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments in Utah by 2 million acres and the ensuing court case). Using longitudinal data on all individual business establishments in the 8-state Mountain West region from 1990 through 2015, I am conducting a difference-in-differences regression analysis of the impacts of national monument designations on local economic growth. Presentation scheduled for AERE Summer Conference and working paper to be released in summer 2019. Stay tuned!


Angel’s Landing, Zion National Park, Utah

Angel’s Landing, Zion National Park, Utah

National parks

In a January 2019 Resources Radio podcast, I talk about some of the problems the U.S. national park system is facing, including funding shortfalls and overcrowding. I discuss some of the proposals for how to solve these problems, including dedicated funds from oil and gas leases on public lands, increased entrance fees to the parks, and more.

In an earlier blog post, I advocated for a change in entrance fees at national parks, mainly to help manage overcrowding but also to raise funds for the park. Raising fees is wildly unpopular with the American public, but the Park Service needs to get creative and test some new approaches (in my opinion). Some other ideas on the table are a little wackier. In this blog post, I threw cold water on the idea of “franchising” our national parks (yes, that’s been suggested).

Casey Wichman, Kevin Ankney, and I analyzed the voluminous data available from the government’s recreation.gov website, where people go to make reservations for activities on public lands. In an RFF report, “Nature-based Recreation: Understanding Campsite Reservations in National Parks,” we document the congestion in national parks at particular times of year, show how far people drive to go camping in parks, how long they stay, and say a bit about the socio-demographic makeup. Researchers interested in outdoor recreation demand should dive into this treasure trove of (big and messy!) data.

In a May 2019 blog post, Reyna Askew and I write about the lack of diversity among visitors to national parks and other public lands. We talk about the financial, historical, and cultural reasons why people of color may not be recreating on public lands. We offer two policy proposals but also caution that diversity initiatives need to be developed in tandem with the communities they are designed to serve.


Bear Mountain State Park, New York

Bear Mountain State Park, New York

parks and conservation funding

The Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) provides funding for federal, state, and local parks using revenues from offshore oil and gas leases. Spending has fluctuated over the years, despite bipartisan support for the program. In this blog post, I compare LWCF to the federal wildlife conservation funding programs, which are better designed and more successful. In this blog post from 2015, I discuss three key issues for LWCF Act reauthorization.

General appropriations funding for state and local parks has declined over the years. In its place has been an increase in user fees, philanthropy (especially in cities), and a variety of different kinds of dedicated taxes and fees. I am skeptical of philanthropy; it works in big cities with a lot of wealthy residents (think New York City) but has several drawbacks. I wrote about the pros and cons in this RFF Issue Brief.

This RFF report evaluates alternative funding options for state parks, spotlighting a few states that have developed robust options (I’m looking at you, Michigan). In this article in Parks and Recreation magazine, and building off the RFF report, I describe alternative dedicated funding approaches for state parks.

In this blog post, I write about the new conservation funding approach adopted in Georgia in November 2018, using state sales tax revenues from outdoor recreation gear sales. I’m not impressed; read the post to know why.


Willamette National Forest, Oregon

Willamette National Forest, Oregon

values, benefits, and ecosystem services

In an article in Land Economics (coauthored with Jessica Chu and Carolyn Kousky),Is What You See What You Get? The Value of Natural Landscape Views,” I use hedonic property value techniques to estimate the value of nature views (ungated version of paper available here). In an earlier paper in American Journal of Agricultural Economics, “The Tradeoff between Private Lots and Public Open Space in Subdivisions at the Urban-Rural Fringe,” Elizabeth Kopits, Virginia McConnell and I assessed how homebuyers value subdivision open space vis-a-vis their own private lot space (ungated version available here). With coauthors, I estimated costs and benefits of floodplain conservation in two settings; those papers are described on the “Hurricanes, flooding, and climate resilience” research page.

I have a forthcoming paper in Water Economics and Policy with Yusuke Kuwayama, “Evaluating Payments for Watershed Services Programs in the United States”. This paper describes 15 programs in the U.S. that use a payment for ecosystem services type program to protect forests and other natural lands to provide clean drinking water, flood attenuation, and other water-related services. One message from our paper: these programs need better data, monitoring, reporting, and measurement to evaluate whether they are working as they should.


In 2016, I wrote in National Parks Traveler about the enduring recommendations from the 2009 Outdoor Resources Review Group (ORRG), a bipartisan commission of conservation, parks, and public lands experts, co-chaired by two U.S. Senators, that conducted a wide-ranging review of outdoor recreation resource issues and made several recommendations, including about funding. I led an RFF research study in support of the ORRG; our expansive and detailed report and accompanying background studies are all still available on an RFF webpage.